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Reading diary 2018, #4

A mixed bag this time around, although I’ve used that excuse before. I read what interests me. If I’m swayed by fads, it’s for one book or two. I read books by friends – but I have a lot of friends who write a variety of types of fiction. Which doesn’t always mean that I automatically like it. The one thing I demand is quality of prose, and I’m happy to read books from any genre that is well-written. The only problem is that different genres seem to rate prose differently. Which is bollocks. I’ve seen reviews of YA novels rate the writing as “excellent” when it’s barely functional. If it’s not up there with the classics, then it’s hardly good. If your book is still admired for its prose 100 years later, then it might be considered excellent. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

The Ghost from the Grand Banks, Arthur C Clarke (1990, UK). Of the Big Three sf writers of the last century, I read more Heinlein than I did Clarke or Asimov. The last I always thought a piss-poor writer, and for some reason Clarke never clicked with me. You’d have thought he would, given he tackles the sort of subjects I enjoy in my sf, and he was very much the hardest, in sf terms, of the three. So you’d also think The Ghost from the Grand Banks, which is about something that has interested me for the past few years, would go down well. It didn’t. The title refers to the wreck of the Titanic, and the novel is basically a rewrite of Cliver Cussler’s Raise the Titanic!, without the implausible thriller-type histrionics, or exclamation mark, and with a series of lectures on, er, Mandelbrot Sets instead. Clarke even has a dig at the film adaptation of Cussler’s novel. The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is rapidly approaching, and two groups of people decide to raise the wreck to mark it. Since the wreck is in two parts, they’ll each raise one part using different methods. A British consortium plans to use glass spheres to float the forward part of the wreck, and a Japanese-American group will freeze the stern part in an iceberg, which they will then shoot to the surface using rockets. This is a book that revels in its use of future technology, and yet manages to get most of it wrong. It’s an occupational hazard of near-future sf, I admit, but most such novels are written such that they’re readable years later. Clarke didn’t appear to care. And perhaps with good reason: he’d sell boatloads, and if the book was out of print 12 months later, he had plenty of other properties pulling in the cash. It’s not that Clarke stinted on his research, more that it all feels re-used – as if he’d done it for another project and decided to get extra mileage out of it by writing this novel. Which is pretty bad. The characterisation is paper-thin, the plot is obvious, the science is mostly incidental, and the computer technology described is completely off-base… Not one of Clarke”s best. Missable.

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock (2013, UK). This was Charnock’s debut novel, but I’ve jumped about a bit in reading her books, having read her latest most recently. However, she doesn’t stray from her shtick, so I’d a good idea what to expect. A Calculated Life provides the setting of Charnock’s novella, The Enclave, which is good, but suffers from not knowing the setting, as revealed in A Calculated Life. A flaw I have now rectified. In the near-future of A Calculated Life, which seems to be set after some sort of climate crash as Lancashire now has a Mediterranean climate, “simulated humans” are relatively common in the workplace. They’re force-grown, and genetically-engineered for certain traits. The main character of A Calculated Life is Jayna, one such simulated human. She works for a private company in Manchester, predicting economic and social trends based on seemingly unconnected events. She is very good at it – much better than “bios” and earlier models of simulants. But driving her ability is an obsession to learn as much as possible about people… and so she begins to secretly break out of her carefully prescribed life. This involves several trips to an enclave, as sort of working class suburb of Manchester which the government has pretty much abandoned – a sort of a cross between a ghetto and a barrio. Charnock paints a convincing portrait of a late-twenty-first century Britain which has responded to a drop in population due to climate change (rather than due to Brexit, although climate change will inevitably follow). The world-building is very low-key – and if only more sf writers did it so – to the extent it takes a while to figure out what is what. There’s enough that is the same, and enough that’s very different, to keep the reader comfortable as they slowly learn what’s what. The writing is good, clear and neither showy nor flashy, but this is not a long novel, only 208 pages. It does make it feel a little insubstantial. It’s good, but, happily, each new book by Charnock is better than the last. Her most recent, Dreams Before the Start of Time, will be getting the #1 slot on my ballot at the BSFA Awards (I’m especially happy it made the shortlist). Charnock is proving to be a name to watch, although I think she has something much more substantial than what  she was written so far yet to deliver. If you’ve not read her yet, why not?

The Assassinators, Philip Boast (1976, UK). Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, I read four books by Boast that were sort of deep history occult/religious thrillers set in and around London: Resurrection, Deus, Sion and Era. I really enjoyed them. But as far as I could discover, they were the only four books like that Boast had written (and Era, published in 2000, was his last). His other novels appeared to be historical fiction, also set in and around London. But recently I stumbled across mention of his first novel, The Assassinators, described as a straight-up thriller. So I found a cheap copy on eBay, bought it, and… Um, it’s not very good. The writing is pretty poor, in fact. A self-made millionaire decides the world is over-populated and it will lead to catastrophe in a decade or two. So there needs to be a cull – in fact, the UK’s population needs to be reduced to around thirty million. So he arranges to poison the water supply in Merton Regis, a south coast town mostly populated by OAPs (I think I’ve been there, but it was called Eastbourne; horrible place). The plan, of course, does not go as, er, planned. The thugs he hired to poison the water tank screw it up. They put the poison in successfully enough, but leave clues which lead back to the industrialist. Whose wife has also learnt of the plan and is against it, straining their already-strained marriage. Meanwhile, the industrialist has vivid dreams about a post-apocalyptic wasteland caused by a nucealr war brought on by his plans to cull the world population. The Assassinator is not a great book, and in places reads like it’s set much earlier than its publication date – by at least a decade or two. I still like Boast’s last four novels – and I ought to reread them one of these days – but this was an inauspicious start.

Devices and Desires, E Arnot Robertson (1954, UK). I already have a novel by a British postwar novelist titled Devices and Desires. That’s by Susan Ertz and it was published in 1972 (see here). Robertson’s book predates it by almost two decades… but it’s also the sort of story that would have been told two decades earlier. Hebe is a thirteen-year-old girl who, with her father, helps refugees cross Europe post-WWII. The book opens in Bulgaria, where they are helping a group of four refugees cross through Macedonia into Greece – during the Greek civil war – and so onto France and Spain. But Hebe’s father is accidentally shot by andartes – Greek resistance fighters – and so she is forced to lead the group on by herself. After entering Macedonia, they stop for food at a remote farm, and end up staying for several days. In fact, it gets easier to stay than to continue on. But when a “helobowie” – a Greek expat returning to his home village to show off his new-found affluence – turns up, it attracts the attentions of the andartes, and only Hebe and one of her refugees escape. Hebe is reluctant to accept help, because any well-meaning aid agency will immediately send her to a “displaced persons” camp, and she has her own plans. I had no real idea what to expect when I bought Devices and Desires. Robertson was a name on a list of postwar British women writers I planned to work my way through – I’m already a fan of a few, such as Olivia Manning and Elzabeth Taylor – and I admit I picked Devices and Desires because it shared its title with that Ertz novel. But. I liked it. It paints a vivid portrait of the Balkans, it’s careful to set out all the various factions as objectively possible, and it shows a pragmatic, but compassionate, attitude to the problem of refugees. Though it’s set in the decade following WWII, in lands still suffering from the war’s effects, both politically and economically, there’s little in it that dioes not apply today. Refugees deserve our compassion – and ours more than anyone else’s, since we’re the ones causing the refugee crisis in the first place. It’s quite simple: if you don’t want brown people flowing across your borders, don’t bomb the shit out of their homes or keep the various factions in their wars supplied with weaponry and ammunition. It’s a problem with a very simple solution. Unfortunately, that solution means multinational companies foregoing profits. Which will never happen. Devices and Desires is at least set post WWII, and during a civil war precipitated byt the invasion of Greece, and the withdrawal of the invading forces. Robertson’s prose is very much of her time, but I like that style of prose. Hebe is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist. Devices and Desires is not the most gripping novel ever written – it can be slow in places, and the interiority occasionally overwhelms the plot – but the characterisation is assured and the setting is described well. I’m tempted to try more by Robertson. Which was the whole point of reading postwar British women writers in the first place.

Dun da de Sewolawen, Christina Scholz (21018, Austria). I was completely clueless reading this until I later discovered that it was based on the language invented by French prog rock band Magma. When I looked them up, I had a brief moment of déjà vu… and I wondered if it had all been explained to me beforehand but I’d forgotten. If so, I had, er, forgotten. But my ignorance actually enahnced the reading. I found out about it afterwards, and that was interesting. Anyway. the story is a sort of Le Guin-esque coming-of-age piece, which partly uses the world and language of Magma. It’s set on a world colonised by humans, but which had previously be inhabited by a long-dead race. And the humans are slowly integrating some of the culture ofthat long-dead race – through the artefacts they discovered – into their own culture, most noticeably words from Magma’s made-up language, Kobaïan. The writing is polished – had I not known, I’d never have guessed English was not the author’s first language – and most of the unfamiliar terms are parseable from context. It’s a simple enough story, told in first person, that uses unfamiliar vocabulary to add a gloss of strangeness… but what makes it for me is that the strangeness exists independently of the story’s world. It is googleable. It was something I used when writing the Apollo Quartet, that as much as possible “invented” in the three novellas and one novel had an independent existence outside the story. You could look them up in Wikipedia. And that’s true here of Kobaïan and its concepts. For me, it gives an added dimension to the prose. And that pushed Dun da de Sewolawen from a nicely-written Le Guin-esque sf story to something a bit more than that. It also made me want to listen to anything by Magma. Which I have yet to do.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die count: 131

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New Year spend

Christmas comes but once a year, but you can click on the “buy” button or wander into a bookstore on any day of the year…

To start, some Christmas presents. Having been impressed by Charnock’s other novels, especially Dreams Before the Start of Time (see here), I’m looking forward to reading her debut, A Calculated Life. I “discovered” Henry Green only a year or two, but I’m steadily working my way through his oeuvre; Pack My Bag is an autobiography, written because Green didn’t think he’d survive WWII (he did). I bought the first book of the Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season, because it was on offer for £2.00, and thought it quite good; so I bunged The Obelisk Gate on my wish list.

Further additions to some bandes dessinées series I’ve been reading for several years. Volume 20 The Order of the Stones and Volume 21 The Time Opener are actually the end of the Valerian and Laureline series; there’s a volume 22, but it looks more like a B-sides sort of collection. Orbital 7: Implosion is the start of a new two-part story, although it does follow on from Orbital 6: Resistance.

Some recent science fiction. I’ve been a fan of Matthews’s Under Jurisdiction series since reading the first one, An Exchange of Hostages, so I was pleased when they started again recently; Fleet Insurgent is a collection of short stories and novelettes set in the universe. Not every novella tor.com has published has been to my taste – in fact, most of them haven’t been – but Acadie is good solid contemporary sf, with a neat twist; also, the author is a friend and I like his writing. The Smoke is Simon Ings’s last novel, and I’m reviewing it for Interzone.

A selection of first editions. A few years ago I started reading some examples of post-war fiction by British women writers, and I’ve been a fan of the writing of both Olivia Manning and Elizabeth Taylor for several years, but I’ve always wanted to try something beyond the handful of writers I read back then – hence, Devices & Desires by E Arnot Robertson, not to be confused with, er, Devices & Desires by Susan Ertz (see here). Many years ago I read a handful of novels by Philip Boast – they were all very similar, with plots based around secret histories of the UK, chiefly secret religious histories, but I really liked them and fancied reading more by him; The Assassinators is his debut novel and was a lucky, and cheap, find on eBay. Eye Among the Blind was Rob Holdstock’s first novel, and I’ve been intending to pick up a first edition copy for ages… so I was especially happy to find a signed one. The Two of Them I found cheap on eBay from a UK-based seller.

Some charity shop finds. I’ve never read any Ali Smith, although I’ve heard many people speak approvingly of her work; Autumn even looks like it might be genre. I keep an eye open for McCarthy’s novels when I find them, so Suttree was a happy find. And while I can take or leave Clarke, The Ghost from the Grand Banks is about underwater exporation, so it’ll be interesting seeing what Sir Arthur made of it.

I’m not sure how to describe this one. I found it on eBay, from a German seller, and since I’m a fan of James Benning’s films I couldn’t resist it. Although titled (FC) Two Cabins by JB, it seems to include essays on other works by Benning and not just that one. I didn’t pay anywhere near the price currently being asked on Amazon…


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Readings of recentness

And there’s me thinking I’d given up commenting on the books I’d read here on my blog…

Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964). A review of this will be going up on SF Mistressworks this week (need MOAR REVIEWS, btw. Volunteer. Please.) Garish cover art, a strapline that reads, “A fiendish race of demonic children is spawned in the genetic chaos of a runaway nuclear explosion”, a thirteen-year-old girl as a protagonist, and a prose style that feels two decades earlier that its publication date… It’s actually not bad.

Shine Shine Shine, Lydia Netzer (2012). About which I wrote some words here.

The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett (1930). This is allegedly the best crime noir novel ever written, which doesn’t say much for the genre. I knew the story from the Bogart film, and was surprised at how faithful an adaptation it proved to be. There’s a feeling throughout the story that Hammett was blithely making shit up… and then there’s this section on the history of the eponymous bird which names various mediaeval texts and it all seems very convincing. I liked Gutman, and Hammett did a good job with his dialogue. Spade was a cypher, and I was soon sick to death of reading about his “wooden features”. Couldn’t get a handle on the femme fatale or Joe Cairo. The functional prose was, at best, functional. The film is better.

Lunar Caustic, Malcolm Lowry (1968). Which is perhaps chiefly interesting because of its publishing history. An early version of this novella was accepted for publication in Story magazine in the 1930s, but Lowry called it back. And continued to work on it. I can sort of understand the impulse. When Lowry died in 1957, he left behind several manuscript versions, and his wife and Earle Birney, a neighbour and university professor of English, spliced together this 1968 edition out of them. It’s set in a psychiatric hospital in New York and is, like much of Lowry’s fiction, partly autobiographical. There are moments of genius in it, though it does feel somewhat slight compared to some of his other novella-length fiction, especially ‘Through the Panama’. Also, its publication history has disguised the fact that it’s set in 1936, when Lowry checked himself into Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital (though he started work on it in 1934, on his arrival in New York). As a result, it feels weirdly old-fashioned for its time – given its publication year it’s tempting, for example, to read it as a contemporary of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which suggests that psychiatric hospitals changed very little in the intervening three decades. Lunar Caustic was intended to be a part of a seven-novel sequence, The Voyage That Never Ends, which would I suspect have been a major work of English literature. As it is, we can only treasure what little we have.

The Watcher, Jane Palmer (1986). And this one I did review for SF Mistressworks and you can see my review here.

Girl Reading, Katie Ward (2011). A very impressive debut, and almost certain to end up on my top five books of the year. I wrote about it here.

Sion, Philip Boast (1999). Boast’s weird alternate secret biblical histories are something of a guilty pleasure, but I think this one pushed the weirdness factor a bit too far. It’s set in Biblical Judea, and told from the point of view of Mary Magdalene. Except she’s not really Mary Magdalene. Whoever she is, she has lived before, and remembers historical events dating back to Moses and Abraham, and even much, much earlier. In Sion, Joseph and Mary belong to a sect, but Jesus also has brothers and sisters. And it was Jesus’ brother James who is considered the messiah of prophecy. But Jesus truly is the Son of God, although his message of love is anathema to the sect and to their conception of a messiah. Jesus marries Mary Magdalene, and after the crucifixion, Mary and child escape to France. The story is then narrated by their son, Jude, who travels and eventually discovers the Ark of the covenant and its secret. He dies and then becomes a disembodied intelligence who leaps from body to body, occasionally meeting up with his mother, who is apparently doing the same. The final section explains that Mary was a passenger aboard an asteroid starship crossing through this universe, but which crashed and stranded a group of them on prehistoric Earth. Or something. It’s not entirely clear. It’s a shame the book is so unbalanced, with far too much of the narrative spent on too detailed a description of Mary’s time in Judea. It’s only when Jude appears that it picks up pace, but even then it throws away the entire point of the plot in a hurried final section. Disappointing.

Vapour Trails, Mike Lithgow, ed. (1958). Funniest book I’ve read all year. It’s a series of essays about test piloting by British pilots of the day. You get the impression that a number of the anecdotes they recount have seen plentiful use in after-dinner speeches. The more astonishing incidents are those set during the really early days of aviation, where anyone with sufficient money could buy a plane and learn to fly it themselves. One test pilot, for example, tells of an incident in the 1920s at an airfield where he worked. A wealthy German had bought himself a Blériot plane and was learning how to fly it. Blériots, apparently, could manage an altitude of 200 feet on warms days, but only 20 feet on cold days. The German set off across the airfield in his plane, and eventually took off. Just as he was about to clear the hangars, he turned off his engine… and the plane promptly crashed. When asked why he’d turned off the engine, he explained he’d picked up a tail wind and thought that was enough to keep him flying… Recommended, even if you’re not an aviation buff.

The Ascendant Stars, Michael Cobley (2011). Is the third and final book of Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire space opera trilogy, and notable among such types of books in that it actually resolves the plot and leaves pretty much everything neat and tidy. In the previous two books – Seeds Of Earth and The Orphaned Worlds – Cobley went slightly berserk and set so many balls spinning, it was hard to keep track of them all. There was the invasion of Darien by an imperialistic alien race, there were the cyborg Legion of Avatars imprisoned in hyperspace and about to break free, the lost human colony who have been operating as mercenaries for the bad guys but have now schismed, the planned terrorist attack which turns out to be much more than it seems, and I forget what else. And it appears it’s all a feint or something because the Godhead, a vast machine intelligence resident in hyperspace, wants to transcend and needs to blow up fifty suns to do so. Cobley handles his large cast with deftness, there are some nicely-written set pieces, and his universe contains plenty of variety and diversity. However, and perhaps it’s just me, but it all feels a bit tired. The Humanity’s Fire trilogy is an accomplished space opera trilogy, but I’ve lost faith in the subgenre, in its “anything goes” ethos, its “chuck everything in” world-building… I think we’re seeing the end of new space opera, British or otherwise. It’ll either settle into a rut, much as high fantasy has done for the past twenty years, or it will slowly fade away. It already feels a bit like the twentieth century, ie a progressive experiment that people are inexplicably turning their back on – cf Leviathan Wakes. Regression is not the next step. We need something new to come along, and I think, and hope, we may be seeing New Hard Science Fiction poised to take its place…